In early 2013, there was a joke running around Tampa Bay Lightning fans that they should be sleeping with a framed picture of Andrei Vasilevskiy over their beds so they could wake-up each morning knowing that they had a goaltending future. It can be hard to understate just how bad the Lightning’s goaltending situation was after Khabibulin left for Chicago in 2005. The team threw every type of goaltender onto the ice, from journeyman to high draft pick, with little success to show for it.
Steve Yzerman knew this situation well when taking over the Lightning, so he worked to completely overhaul their goaltending pool. In less than a year, Yzerman traded for Anders Lindback and Ben Bishop, while drafting Vasilevskiy 19th overall in the 2012 draft. The idea was simple. If you put enough talent on the ice, eventually someone will stick.
Finding the Future
At the start of the 2013-14 season, it was unknown who would be the starter for the Lightning, but it was clear that Vasileveskiy was the future. The young Russian goaltender put up solid numbers in the KHL on limited appearances and looked on track to come play for the Lightning’s AHL affiliate the next year.
By the end of the season, however, the goaltending future seemed less sure for the Lighting, but for positive reasons. Where Anders Lindback struggled to take over as a starting goaltender, Ben Bishop thrived. Once he was given full reign of a team, Bishop didn’t let go. He led the Lightning to an unexpected playoff berth in 2014 before being injured only weeks before the playoffs. Without Bishop, the Lightning floundered behind backup Lindback and were swept out of the playoffs by the Montreal Canadiens.
Training the Next Class
But for the first time in close to a decade, the Lightning had a bonafide starting goaltender. With Bishop finding his groove with the Lightning, the franchise could give Vasileveskiy the proper time needed to develop his game. Instead of rushing him to the starting line-up, they let him earn his way onto the Lightning by playing with the Syracuse Crunch. While he played consistently well for the Crunch, Evengi Nabokov struggled as Bishop’s back-up in the 2014-15 season. Showing that he was ready, the Lightning brought Vasilevskiy up to replace the veteran Nabokov and to work under Bishop.
For two years Vasilevskiy stayed in this role with the Lightning. He bounced around between the Syracuse Crunch and the Lightning before taking a permanent role on the roster in 2016. Knowing that the expansion draft was looming and that Bishop was due for a raise, the Lightning tested Vasileveskiy by giving him more ice time to see how he handled the extra pressure. While neither Bishop nor Vasilevskiy excelled while splitting ice time, the Lightning saw enough to pull the trigger and place the franchise on the back of Vasilevskiy when they traded Bishop to the LA Kings.
Following the trade, Vasilevskiy went 12-5-2 and was a major player in helping the Lightning’s late season push for the playoffs. While no longer having to fight for playtime, Vasilevskiy looked more at home in net, with veteran back-up Peter Budaj providing the perfect level presence for the team. He then continued this success by backstopping Russia to a Bronze medal in the 2017 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship in lieu to being named goaltender of the tournament.
The Future is Now
If this late season success is any indicator of where Vasilevskiy is right now in his career, the Lightning have to be happy with how they were able to develop their top goaltending prospect. By taking a slow, patient route they may have set themselves for the next decade; no small feat for a franchise that has only had a handful of goaltenders producing for more than two years.
There is no telling what will happen in the 2017-18 season. But for the Lightning, Vasilevskiy will play as important of a role for the team as Steven Stamkos, Nikita Kucherov, and Victor Hedman. If Vasilevskiy is able to continue his excellent play from the end of the year, the Lightning will be in a great position to make a return to the playoffs in 2018.